My life in bookstores

Robin McKinley’s author bio in her early books used to say that she kept track of her life according to what she was was reading in various locations; she traveled around quite a bit as a child because her father was in the navy. I didn’t have such an exotic upbringing, but I find that I have strong memories associated with the bookstores located in the places where I’ve lived. Here are some of my favorites. Please share yours!

Island Books Etc., Mercer Island, WA

bookstore Mercer Island
Just like I remember it from the 1980s.

This was the only bookstore in the suburb where I lived from third grade till college, so I spent a lot of time there. It had (and still has) a pretty good general book selection, cool magazines, paper goods and greeting cards, and a nice children’s department. It was just around the corner from my dentist’s office and I got to go there frequently for a non-cavity-causing treat after dental work. Another memory: when I was about ten they had a contest to name their new children’s book department. I don’t remember what my entry was, but I’m sure it couldn’t be more boring than the winner: “Children’s Books Etc.” Oh, please.

University Book Store, Seattle and Bellevue, WA

bookstore Seattle University

The U-district was the place to go when I was a teenager, and no visit was complete (for me anyway) without a trip to this mecca run by the University of Washington. The office and art supplies were an attraction as well as the excellent selection of general, children’s, SFF, and scholarly books. The Bellevue branch store opened at some point in those years as well, and I worked there in the pre-Christmas season for a few years, learning useful gift-wrapping skills. One year absolutely everybody was buying Possession in hardback and the pre-Raphaelite cover is engraved on my brain.

Powell’s City of Books, Portland, OR

bookstore Portland

Okay, I never actually lived in Portland, more’s the pity, but it was worth the three-hour trip just to go to the massive Powell’s. If you can’t find it here, you’re not looking. By the way, if you use the “Search at Powell’s” function on this site and buy anything from them, I’m an affiliate and get a small percentage, which I will spend on more books from Powell’s. Support independent bookstores!

Carleton College Bookstore, Northfield, MN

bookstore Northfield Minnesota college
Carleton’s Sayles-Hill Campus Center

I mostly bought textbooks and sweatshirts in the basement during my four years at Carleton, but the upstairs general books department was always good for a browse. I remember eyeing the Penguin paperbacks of Robertson Davies’s novels there for years and then finally buying Tempest-Tost when I was a senior — the start of a long love affair with that wonderful author.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA

Seattle bookstore Pioneer Square

When I moved back to Seattle after college, I could take the bus or even walk downtown from my Madison Park house, and I would frequently end up at this Pioneer Square landmark. As well having a fantastic store and cafe they also hosted author readings and visits practically every other day. I saw Ursula K. LeGuin and Denise Levertov here, among others. The historic neighborhood went severely downhill, however, and a few years ago they decided they had to move or die. I haven’t yet visited their new Capitol Hill location, but I do hope it keeps them afloat.

The Sunbridge College Bookstore, Chestnut Ridge, NY

Waldorf bookstore New York
Sadly, this sign is no more.

I probably spent more time in this store than in any of the others combined, because I worked there part-time for seven years while attending Waldorf teacher training at Sunbridge College and then the eurythmy training at Eurythmy Spring Valley. My manager, who took over the store the year I arrived, was an eccentric but brilliant woman who tripled the size of the store and turned it from a dumpy corner of the Threefold Auditorium building into a jewel-toned, artfully arranged oasis. In quiet times when she was not around I got to spend many happy hours perusing the small but carefully-chosen stock of books on spirituality, education, the arts and crafts, and more. Another casualty of the internet age, after I left it had to drastically reduce its stock and move into Meadowlark Toys and Crafts, the end of a brief but memorable heyday.

Books of Wonder, New York, NY

children's bookstore new york

There are lots of great bookstores in New York, of course, but I was a fan of Books of Wonder before I even moved to the area. For a while I was a member of their collector’s club, and always loved perusing their catalog of used and rare titles. As well as being one of the best children’s bookstores you’ll find anywhere, for several years they collaborated with the William Morrow publishing house to bring some classics back into print including works by E. Nesbit and L. Frank Baum. These are sadly now mostly out of print, but they still offer the complete Oz series in hardcover, which I’ve had my eye on for some time.

Toadstool Bookshop, Peterborough, NH

bookstore Peterborough New Hampshire
Don’t let the rather unprespossessing exterior put you off.

A year ago I moved to what some friends rather uncharitably called “the boonies,” but with this super independent bookstore just 15 minutes away, what more do I need? There are two other locations in the Toadstool mini-chain, in Keene and Milford, but this one is my favorite. It has a large used book department as well, and I pretty much never leave the store without buying something there. My latest score was the first U.S. edition of The Neverending Story, with its unusual two-color printing that identifies the two parts of the story (in our world and Fantastica). I’m sure I’ll find many more treasures there in the years to come.

Have you been to any of these? What did you think? What are your favorite bookstores?

10 thoughts on “My life in bookstores

  1. I will never forget visiting The Book Loft in Columbus, OH when I was 10. It is an independent bookstore with 32 rooms!! I believe it sells mostly used books. Anyway, my mother bought some international fairy tales for me when I was there. I have started buying books fairly recently. I generally preferred libraries to bookstores because the books are free. Now, however, I buy books more and more frequently. I am trying to build up a collection of books that I know I will reread and that I want to share with my future children (once I get married and all the rest).


    1. I used to buy books more, then had a phase (when I was moving around the country) when I had to unload some. Now, like you, I'm trying to buy selectively for myself and posterity. I could have done "my life in libraries" as well… I will definitely look for the Book Loft if I'm ever in Columbus. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Oh, what an inspiring post! There really is nothing like a bookstore. No library or online bookstore (heaven forfend) can ever compare. As I think about it analytically, I think it's that thrill of the hunt. You have absolutely no idea what you're going to stumble upon, but that's the fun of it. I think the best bookstore for me was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I lived for a few years. I have absolutely no memory of the name of it, but I can tell you that it was great.


  3. Great post, I love reading about bookstores. Of these shops I've only visited Books of Wonder. I was completely blown away. It took me some time to decide which books were most deserving of suitcase space 😛 Someday I would like to go to Powell's. One of my favourite stores is Blackwell's in Oxford. I was there for five days last summer and I went to that store every day! My city only has one indie bookstore but we have lots of used bookstores. One that specializes in children's literature is a favourite of mine.


    1. Maybe you can do a round-the-world and stop by Portland on your way home from Japan. : ) I did go to Blackwell's on my one trip to Oxford and but that's one of those bookstore-visits-while-traveling that all blend together in my memory. These are the ones I really did "live" in.


  4. Such a fun post! We didn't have any bookstores in the small town I grew up in in Oregon, but the library was my favorite Saturday morning stop. I spent my college years in Portland, but before Powells was there, I think! I've been back to Oregon through the years and visit Powells when I can. I've also been to Elliott Bay Book Company several times. Both great stores. I don't buy many paper books anymore, but I do like a good used bookstore especially to find old children's books. I live in southern Maryland now and have found a couple around here which are fun to explore.


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